The brilliant mechanics of Pokémon Go


If you haven’t seen it already, you will soon when you are walking down the street. Every person you pass who is fervently looking at their phone is likely playing the No. 1 game in the country right now: Pokémon Go.

You might think it’s popular because of the brand. Nintendo, which refused to make a Pokémon game for the longest time on a smartphone, has finally caved and brought its beloved franchise to the small screen. But what may be overlooked amid all that is that the game, on its own, is phenomenally well designed, despite myriad bugs and endless server outages. If you look at all aspects of the game loop — engagement, retention, virality and monetization — it nails pretty much everything on the head. Niantic managed to hit a very rare, exceptional home run on every textbook point of the game’s development.

That’s not an easy feat. Only a few games in the history of the iPhone have managed similar success. The closest analogies are probably Minecraft and Candy Crush Saga, which also rocketed to not only the top of the App Store download charts, but also the top-grossing charts. Pokémon — much like Minecraft before it — launched immediately at the top of the charts. So its immediate success, based on the App Store rankings, isn’t necessarily unprecedented.

So, what makes this game so engaging and, from what we’ve seen so far, potentially very addictive? Let’s break it down into its core pieces.


Some of the most popular games have bite-time playing sessions. But the session time in Pokémon Go can essentially be as long as the player wants, because there is a constant way to increase the length of the session time by walking to more pit-stops. That’s a really hard thing to do in a game. Most session times are restricted to levels or gated with lives or energy. For Pokémon Go, there’s just enough friction to inspire players to potentially pay to extend the length of their play session with less work, but also offer them the ability to go out of their way to extend that session time without having to pay.

When I think about the structure of the play sessions in Pokémon Go, I often think of a role-playing game called Persona 4 Golden for the PlayStation Vita. The overall unit of time in the game is a day in the life of your character. The sessions are built into bite-size chunks based on the time of the day — morning, afternoon and evening — and save points are littered through most parts of the game. And the combat sections of the game are also segmented into levels, with the option of leaving a dungeon at any point to save your game and end the playing session. In the same way as Pokémon Go, the game’s session time can basically be extended to as long as the player wants while still keeping the basic mechanics of the game intact. In the case of Persona 4 Golden, that friction isn’t necessary because the player has already bought the game, but for Pokémon Go it’s incredibly well executed.

PokemonGO1Pokémon Go, like other well-designed popular mobile games, offers a quick ramp up that teases a lot of front-loaded rewards to get the player to come through the door and shut it behind them. That’s important to grab their attention, but there are also multiple layers of rewards that keep players wanting to stay in the game. You can collect items in order to power up your Pokémon and evolve them, but it’s also important to level up your own character. There are different layers of currency built into the game that progress along different time curves, giving each layer of progression its own speed and flavor. In that way, players can hit rewards at different increments of the game without feeling trapped in a grind for everything to level up at the same time.

Amid the entire play session, the game has to stay open. That keeps you from getting distracted and flipping out to other apps. I find myself walking with my phone in my pocket, but with the game open often enough while wearing headphones. Whenever there’s a chime, I take the phone out of my pocket and start playing — whether that’s collecting Pokéballs or trying to capture something new (or some crappy junk Pokémon for the sake of experience). The game world is vibrant and beautiful, making it something easy and fun to see. It’s filled with flair and flashes that are visually stimulating and signal new elements of the game. All this makes the player want to keep their eyes — or ears — glued to their phone, ready to engage with it the moment something new happens.

All of this is great design, and doesn’t even mention the brand equity Pokémon has built up. Nintendo has sold nearly 60 million 3DS units. Pokémon X & Y alone have totaled nearly 15 million in sales. That’s an incredible nearly 25 percent penetration rate for all Pokémon enabled devices. If Nintendo were to barely scratch that with the nearly 2.5 billion smartphones in the world (according to Statista), that alone represents a staggering install base.

Pokémon already is a worldwide phenomenon, and that alone is probably enough to get the player in the door beyond simply encountering other players and hearing about it organically. Pokémon Go currently only supports the original 150 Pokémon as well, tapping into the untapped nostalgia for which players have been waiting nearly a decade.


An array of user-generated gameplay experiences is critical to building strong retention, and all the pieces are already built into the Pokémon Go experience. Each capture session is unique — the angle of the Pokéball is different, the placement of the Pokémon is different and there’s also an opportunity to have a unique experience tied with the real world. You have probably seen on your Facebook feed screenshots of Pokémon sitting on other peoples’ heads or in their laps. Each capture moment offers a unique player session, and while many will be similar, there’s the tantalizing opportunity to have something truly unique that’s really exciting.

There’s also an incredibly sticky part of user-generated content that exists alongside the game: the actual walk. Each walk a player goes for, in theory, is unique. The environment in the real world is different, the people you run into may be different, the weather may be different, or the time of day. The environment in the game is also different, with Gyms constantly in flux and new Pokémon appearing at different intervals and in different places. Each walk also actively engages the player physically — and exercise naturally triggers a positive feel for your body, adding an additional layer of delight to the gameplay experience.

This is such a new mechanic for a popular game that’s unprecedented. For most games, the user-generated gameplay is restricted to an imaginary universe. It’s a level on Candy Crush Saga that you get that lucky explosive cookie. It’s a player-versus-player round in World of Warcraft where you get that lucky critical hit. It’s a round of Destiny where you are just on fire and keep getting headshots. But all of these take place inside a screen, interfaced by a controller — whether that’s a real controller or a touchscreen.

The mastery curve is also smooth — over time you build a strong array of Pokémon that help you advance further in the game. The end of the game, like the regular Pokémon games, is a moving target, and there’s basically always someone out there that’s slightly better than you. That gives players a constant incentive to continue progressing along the mastery curve.

Pokemon Go


What’s also unprecedented is Niantic’s spin on the game’s viral loop. In Pokémon Go, there’s no feature that allows you to extend the life of your playing session by inviting or reaching out to friends. In fact, the social graph is almost non-existent in Pokémon Go. Instead, your in-game social graph is an extension of a supplemented version of your real-world social graph. A smartphone owner sees someone playing the game, becomes curious, downloads the game and plays it — both interacting with other players and inspiring curiosity in other potential new players. And the rest of the time you’re looking at screenshots of what’s happening in the game in your Facebook feed, or texting friends when you managed to catch that rare Pokémon.

You can read stories in many places on the internet of people randomly interacting with each other related to Pokémon Go. I experienced this already when walking around San Francisco, only to have a car drive by with one of the passengers yelling that there was a rare-ish Pokémon down the street (it was an Ivysaur, for those keeping tabs). This is table stakes for the Pokémon Go experience, and it’s what gets new players in the door. This kind of virality is especially powerful because it isn’t limited to an existing social graph. The whole viral loop is augmented in such a way that a non-connected interaction in the real world can lead to a new player, a download and then monetization of that player.

That’s why I t\ink this interpretation of the viral loop mechanic is so fascinating and is going to be so successful. Never before has a game immediately achieved such popularity in such a way that it regularly intersects with the real world. A lot of people consider it to be an augmented-reality experience, and in many ways you could consider it to be that. But it’s not just an experience that uses your camera to play — it’s an experience that crosses the boundary between an imaginary universe and the real world. I think the proper term that should be applied to this would be mixed-reality. The phrase augmented reality just doesn’t give the game enough credit for being able to break that fourth wall and constantly move the player between an imaginary world and the real world.

And it also represents an enormous opportunity for the game if Niantic decides to implement other important aspects of Pokémon, like trading. Without an embedded social graph the game has already grown to immense popularity. Just imagine if it began to add an additional layer of player interaction — even if, again, it only takes place in the real world.


PokemonGO3So it’s no wonder that the game has already hit the top of the App Store’s top-grossing charts. There’s a lot going on in the monetization component of Pokémon Go, but again, it nails nearly every angle of attack to get players to make a payment.

You can extend the life of your play session with more Pokéballs. You can speed up your growth curve by getting Egg Incubators, further increasing your array of potential Pokémon to further progress in the game. You can increase the rate of the engaging capture sessions by buying Incense.

The same can be said for Lure Modules, which not only represent accelerated progression in the game but yet another way to tap into Pokémon Go’s viral loop. Players congregate around areas — whether for catching Pokémon or building up their Pokéball stock — and that increases the probability that new, curious players will come by and discover the game independent of the App Store or other methods, like Facebook App Install ads. Users paying for this contribute to the entire community of players given the benefit it offers everyone else.

The most important aspect of this is that the gameplay, unlike most of the most-popular mobile and social games, is not gated. Paying Niantic and Nintendo money simply allows players to progress more quickly, but it doesn’t impede their progress overall. Players have an opportunity to progress through the game at their own rate. As the saying goes, you still need the slow boat to China if you’re going to be successful.

Niantic here does such a good job of creating just enough friction that, at the exact moment, it can capture an opportunity for monetization. Players don’t feel compelled to spend money, and instead they’re offered a delightful experience when they elect to spend money. Those eye-popping visuals continue, they keep throwing Pokéballs and they don’t have to wait to see some of the most powerful Pokémon game.

Final thoughts

All this together creates a very powerful, sticky and accelerating game loop that is helping the game grow at such an incredible rate. But there’s another underlying thread amid all this: It bodes very well for holdout franchises to expand into mobile devices amid fear of cannibalizing devices or other parts of the market. Even Final Fantasy, in a way, has found its way onto mobile devices with Final Fantasy Record Keeper. A lot of these mechanics were pioneered in the company’s previous game, Ingress. But it’s hard to deny that all of these at the scale of Pokémon Go make it a completely different experience.

Nintendo, amid the runaway early success of the game, added $9 billion to its market cap. This is such a strong, powerful signal to holdout franchises that haven’t quite entered the smartphone ecosystem. And there’s a good reason to do so: if that 2.5 billion device number from Statista is accurate, it offers such an enormous opportunity that it may be well worth eating up some potential hardware sales.

This is a transition that the advertising market faced in the not-too-distant past. Google is constantly hounded by the need to shift its advertising revenue to mobile devices, in the hope that less-valuable ads can be traded for a larger volume of ads on mobile devices. Facebook has built a business worth hundreds of billions of dollars off its mobile advertising products.

Video game stalwarts will face the same dilemma: Do you trade hardware and console sales in favor of the incredible volume of smartphone users? Is it worth the risk to assume people will still buy your consoles when Mario is available on your phone? Can a company like Nintendo offer an array of experiences that span multiple devices? In this week’s blowout success of Pokémon Go the answer? For now it appears to be rounded up to a Yes.

Alas, there’s no way to mash down+A+B. Get on that, Niantic.

More TechCrunch

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back